Treading softly

Photo by Louisa Potteron Unsplash

Why I changed the way I walk and why you shouldn’t follow suit.

The following is neither intended to convince nor advice.

I am simply sharing my experience and some of my reasoning.

There are so many things I take for granted. Being able to walk is one of them. Nobody taught me how to do it, and I must have spent a good number of months lying on my back after I was born before beginning to shift and move. I have no memory of the struggle, of the bumps and missteps that I endured getting myself into an upright position. No memory of the many times I must have fallen over in order to learn how to stand and walk. Later on, lucky enough, I observed my kids going through the same, and I didn’t teach them either.

Walking is considered the most natural way of moving, which makes it difficult to see how it is influenced by our culture, and the environment we move in.

The cultural norm is to wear shoes. And there is nothing wrong with that.

It is, however, affecting our gait patterns and with that how tissues activate and engage, how we hold ourselves. The most telling examples are the tissue shortening and shift in pelvis positioning experienced in high heels. If you enjoy wearing high heels by all means go ahead. At least be aware what it does to your body and what you might be able to do in order to minimise restrictions or imbalances.

You might have noticed the difference between walking in shoes and going barefoot in much the same way I did. When walking bare-feet I would seek to land on my forefoot to soften the impact, in particular on surfaces like wet sand or hard wood floors. Pointing my toes, reaching for the ground, the balls of my feet would start to take the weight until my whole foot would make contact. It felt so much better and less jarring on my body and became my default mode when walking barefoot.

Photo by Christopher Sardegnaon Unsplash

Putting my shoes back on, I would revert to the habitual heel strike. And my observations confirm that everybody seems to walk in this way.

And then, I discovered barefoot shoes, which I have been wearing for the last five years. What a revelation. I took to them like fish take to water, and without transitioning slowly as is recommended. I immediately fell in love with the quality of feedback I got from the ground. Having my feet touch and feel, and move with less restriction was a pleasurable experience.

But I was still using heel strike in my barefoot shoes, and walking as softly as I could.

I injured both of my knees badly more than a year ago. Walking became painful and troublesome. I had to cut down on the daily distances a lot. I believe, compensations in my feet, knees and hips had built up over time and were triggered by some uncomfortable leg positioning when doing seated meditation for 12 days in a row.

Pain is a brilliant motivator, and in my case, it helped me to seek adjustments in the way I would walk, stand, and turn when looking to explore what level of movement was still available to me. Not moving wasn’t an option and not creating more pain also an objective. I aimed to move within a tolerable level of discomfort.

What I discovered over the course of a year dealing with my compromised knees was that sitting for too long didn’t help, as I would often feel worse after 45 minutes of driving. More importantly, when I stopped sitting down at work my knees improved by a lot. I am a massage therapist and my set-up allows me to sit down when massaging the head, neck and upper shoulder or for facials. I ditched that approach and would alter the height of my massage table to remain on my feet throughout. The results were amazing and noticeable in a short amount of time. I was able to distribute weight through my feet and alter my posture, moving ever so slightly this way or that. My knees continued to improve.

In line with these adjustments I began altering the way I walked in my shoes. I felt it was time to acknowledge that barefoot shoes are very different.

They don’t provide any heel cushioning. The protective and very flexible sole is flat, while the rest of the shoe is non-restrictive. There are 33 joints in each foot and a higher concentration of bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments than in any other body region, except the hands. Imagine the amount of mobility gained with that number of joints, even though each might facilitate only small movements. So why restrict that potential for movement. It made sense to move the way I would without shoes, employing forefoot strike, cushioning the impact. And so I did.

My barefoot shoes allow me to respond and adjust to the changing surface qualities much better, aligning and organizing my body around my feet. I can feel the ground before committing to put my weight down. And I don’t have to scan ahead cautiously for obstacles, looking up instead.

If you are into running, which I am not, you might know that impact and injury risk with fore- and mid-foot strikes is lessened. This is why the different designs of running shoes on offer accommodate different styles of running. It is also interesting to note that when walking uphill or downhill, on a steep incline, when our legs can’t fully extend that we naturally use fore-, mid- or whole-foot strikes. Heel strike can only be used when the leg swings into full extension.

Moving away from my usual style of walking when in barefoot shoes was no easy task. It required me to stay aware of how I was moving, as I would unconsciously fall back on heel strike. I also had to loose the self-consciousness that showed up. It became easier when I realised that nobody cared or paid attention to how I would walk.

My knees are still free from pain. And so, I continue to feel my way, when walking, treading softly.